Aboard the COVID-19 Brandwagon

I have to say, it has been pretty strange trying the launch a blog with a very local slant in a time when the only story anyone cares about is as worldwide as Pitbull.

Yes, it seems like all anybody is talking about right now is COVID-19. And because of the pandemic, everybody is doing their talking over WiFi.

People are (I hope) staying at home most of the time, with the exception of trips out for necessities. We’ve been asked by experts to collectively participate in social distancing and isolation to make sure that the health care system isn’t overloaded with cases. The less interaction people have, the less the risk of transmission throughout the population.

So how much does locality matter in a time like this?

Sure, we can feel a little safer than larger cities with more international links, and our relatively small number of reported cases also might bring comfort to some. To some degree locality definitely matters. I wouldn’t want to be in New York or Italy right now for instance, and I sincerely hope those situations improve.

But it’s more about our daily experience. Many people are living and working in the same space now, and the setting of their lives has shrunk. It stands to reason that if you’re spending most, if not all, of your day in the house, where that house is doesn’t really matter very much.

Given the lack of physical social interactions, you might even say that communities not tied to geography, like interests, such as the sports you watch or your hobbies, are actually rivalling the local community in importance more than usual.

Reddit and other social media platforms are giving us a chance to experience community in isolation

Photo by Kon Karampelas on Unsplash

You probably follow a certain hobby on Instagram, Facebook, or Reddit. Those communities online are all discussing COVID-19, both in general, and how the situation pertains to the area of interest that brought them together.

Think sports. I regularly spend time discussing sports with my group-chat of friends that live all over Ontario, and one is even across the pond in Wales (though fortunately his devotion to the Toronto teams hasn’t dampened with distance). I spend time on reddit or facebook commenting on the developments coming out of the NHL, MLB, and NBA about how their seasons might occur (or not) following this situation.

(For the record, I don’t think any of those leagues will have games this seasons)

The point I’m making is the community I’m interacting with now is less about where I am, and more about what I’m interested in.

Now to some degree, with the heavy integration of social media in our lives, this is always true. But when you’re stuck inside and the actual in-real-life interaction with community is taken away, the importance of the online communities can only grow.

Anyways, the beginning of The Gateway has been a bit of a struggle between wanting to write about the local topics I had envisioned the site being about, and the desire to write about what everyones thinking about right now. Today, the desire to write about this unparalleled, globally-shared experience won out.

One interesting aspect of the COVID situation I thought I’d share some thoughts on is the way that businesses, especially large ones, handle the situation. The pandemic has devastated the stock market, and businesses that have closed as a result have had to decide how or if they would support their employees.

Let’s stick with the sports angle.

Immediately upon the announcement that the NBA season would be suspended, Celebrity-Owner of the Dallas Mavericks Mark Cuban assured the media that the franchise would be taking care of their hourly employees, ensuring they would be receiving the cheques they’re counting on even though the events they work were not going to occur. Some other teams followed suit, and even some big name players, like Giannis Antetokounmpo, donated to funds designed to provide a safety net for the teams hourly employees.

Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment, owner of the Leafs, Raptors, and other Toronto based teams, has ensured that employees will receive 95% of the amount they would have if they had worked the events. Seems good that teams and players were looking out for their people.

Other teams though, like the Winnipeg Jets, who’s owner David Thompson is worth an estimated 38 billion dollars, refused to make such assurances.

Facing an onslaught of public criticism, including the poignant tweet above illustrating just how greedy that move was, the team decided to pay the employees for the remaining home games. The power of public opinion.

There were other penny pinching strategies at the cost of the employees, such as Boston Bruins making their assurance conditional on if the season would continue or not, which would of course represent a major delay to the employees receiving money that they likely could use right now. This also recieved backlash.

The Buffalo Sabres, who have been torturing their fans with their play on the ice for years now, still haven’t put in place a plan to ensure their employees have a safety net in this difficult time. Their owner is worth over 5 Billion dollars.

While discussing the various strategies clubs had for the situation in one of my aforementioned sports-related group chats, one member made a simple, but important point about the world of business right now:

He said that not taking care of the employees was straight up bad business. Why?

Because the only thing anyones talking right now is COVID-19, and that means the only public relations any company has right now is how they handle it.

He makes a great point. Let’s consider some of the big, brand-related, stories we’ve been hearing recently.

Bauer

Bauer, an iconic brand in Canada and the hockey world, recognizing the potential for mass shortages of face masks for front-line healthcare workers, shifted it’s production to the making of hockey visor like face shields to distribute to hospitals all-over.

Is this an inspiring action by the business? Absolutely, I’d say.

They recognized that this is a crucial moment in human history and that they could play a part in mitigating the damage, and they took it. Pandemics are a team sport, and we’re all on team humanity, so bravo to Bauer.

But keep in mind this is also great PR. The brand is in the news when hockey is totally irrelevant, and people will definitely remember the way the brand stepped up to help handle the situation. Bauer scratches the publics back, the public scratches theirs.

A tweet from Head Coach Darren Turcotte indicated that witnessing the brands actions, the Nipissing Woman’s hockey team would be switching to the brand. Bravo Lakers.

This whole situation sucks, but it is definitely an opportunity to reward companies that act with some grace in a scary and uncertain time.

Suds and Sanitizer

Here’s another one you’ve probably seen: craft brewers and brewing conglomerates alike using their facilities to produce hand sanitizer instead of just their delicious beverages. With a major shortage of hand sanitizer, likely due to the hoarding by some individuals, this is another great move.

Labatt is one brand that’s taking action on the sanitizer shortage, while in our region, Crosscut Distillery is putting forth a small but mighty effort to lend a hand. The more we all clean our hands, the better the outcome of this whole situation, and these companies are stepping up in a positive way.

Update: as of March 30, New Ontario brewery in North Bay will also be producing sanitizer. Great news!

My Corona

Speaking of beer, here’s a really weird one: the name of the virus has really hurt one particular brand. Corona, typically enjoyed with a lime, isn’t being enjoyed much these days.

“5W Public Relations said that 38% of Americans wouldn’t buy Corona “under any circumstances” because of the outbreak, and another 14% said they wouldn’t order a Corona in public. The survey encompasses polling from 737 beer drinkers in the United States.”

Valinsky (2020) Corona beer sounds like coronavirus, but it couldn’t have come at a worse time for Corona Beer.

Does it make any sense? Is there a connection between the name coronavirus and the beer? Is there any logical reason not to enjoy a Corona just like any other alcoholic beverage right now?

Photo by Raphael Nogueira on Unsplash

Of course not.

But consumers are weird, and I guess all the bad news associated with the word “corona” has dampened the appitite of their consumers.

Jim Morrison sang it best:

“people are strange“.

Restaurant and Delivery Services

The food industry has certainly had to centre its PR around its handling of the pandemic. Local restaurants, who would be under threat from a bad month let alone a borderline quarantine situation, have had to decide to stay open or not. Those that have stayed open have ensured everyone they’re taking extra precautions, and are really pushing for local support in this difficult time. Some are even changing up their model, like how Twiggs is putting together things like pizza kits that require some assembly and are therefore entertaining. Others are preparing frozen meals and marketing them almost as meal prepped food. Local restraints in North Bay are even uniting under a campaign to “Distance Socially, Eat Locally“.

Larger chain restaurants are also assuring customers that extra precautions are being taken to stop the spread of coronavirus. Little Caesars comes to mind specifically because they’ve marketed their “Pizza Portal” system as a contactless way to get yourself a Hot-n-Ready:

The delivery services, such as Skip the Dishes, are also introducing new precautions against the spread of COVID, advertising “contactless delivery”. Businesses, especially in the restaurant industry, have had to adapt and innovate in response to the threat of the pandemic.

Late Addition: Columbia Sportswear

Basically immediately after I published this article, I read a news story on one CEO making a personal sacrifice to ensure his people were taken care of and I thought it would only be right to give him some props.

Columbia Sportswear CEO Tim Boyle has cut his salary for the 2020 year to a mere $10,000 to ensure the company can afford to pay its employees through this crisis. To give you an idea of the type of pay cut he’s volunteered to take, Boyle made over 3 million dollars in 2018.

I would argue that if one person taking a cut can ensure that everyone is paid that there’s some imbalance that needs to be dealt with in the economy, but it’s not really the time. Ultimately, Boyle didn’t necessarily have to take this cut, but he recognized that his people needed help, and he did what he had to do. In a time of crisis, the man acted with humanity, and that’s exactly what the world needs now.

“A lot of it is symbolic. When we come into a crisis like the one we have right now — where it’s a difficult time for the economy, for workers, people are losing their jobs, people don’t know what to expect — I think for CEOs to come out and say, ‘We are going to give up our pay,’ it’s a signal that they are sharing the pain.”

Itay Goldstein, professor of finance University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School found in
Duffy (March 26, 2020). Why CEOs are giving up their salaries during the coronavirus crisis. CNN Business.

Once again though, you can bet he realizes what great PR the proper handling of the situation will be. People are talking about the company, and see his act as a nobel one. I’m sure that the memory of his action, for consumers, but especially for employees, will sustain long after this crisis is dealt with.

Other CEOs have made similar sacrifices to their own salary for the sake of employees during COVID-19, for a list of those companies, click here.

Essentially Non-Essential

Another thing we should note is whether companies that aren’t really necessary right now refuse to shut down to help stop the spread. I saw this post on facebook the other day, and I found it to be infuriating. I won’t credit anyone with it so nobody gets in trouble, but seriously, I can’t think of anything less important right now than telemarketing. Gathering people together for that purpose is asinine, and shows a disregard for the seriousness of the situation.

Do better Zedd.

Hoping on the Brandwagon

Other brands, that have absolutely nothing to do with the virus are also including the pandemic in their marketing.

Take this Jeep ad for instance:

Cool design? Absolutely. What does the jeep brand have to do with the pandemic? Very little. But at least they’re encouraging public compliance with the advice of experts. It shouldn’t hurt.

And you can expect that the marketing teams of most brands will also jump on this bandwagon, given they still have to advertise, and they know where the public consciousness lies.

So what?

So thousands of people are dying all over the world from the same cause and I’m here talking about brands.

You might be thinking: “Who cares?”

And fair enough. But there is a point I’m making: We need to remember the way companies handled this when this is all said and done.

Mark Cuban apparently believes that the public will have a long memory when it comes to the way brands handle coronavirus:

“How companies respond to that very question is going to define their brand for decades. If you rushed in and somebody got sick, you were that company. If you didn’t take care of your employees or stakeholders and put them first, you were that company,”

Mark Cuban

We vote with every good, service, and experience we buy, and I think that it’s really important that when all this is said and done (and even throughout this), we should be voting for the companies that stepped up and realized some things are bigger than money.

The public consciousness has a short attention span, but with such a profound experience like this, we should have long memories. Let’s reward the people who acted like people, and punish the people who didn’t.

Election day isn’t once every four years. You vote with your wallet everyday. Never forget it, and if you see a brand putting people in a bad spot right now, don’t forget that either.

Corporations were famously ruled to be people by the U.S Supreme Court. Let’s reward the ones that show us some humanity.

RM


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